Lend me your voice

THEATRE Showstopper Arts Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture
Consider the weird existential predicament of Marni Nixon. She was the chanteuse who dubbed the singing voices of (among others) Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and both Natalie Wood and (some of) Rita Moreno in West Side Story. Ubiquitous as a set of tonsils, she was the Invisible Woman of Hollywood, a tiny footnote in the biographies of the famous. She did not get a credit on the soundtrack albums, nor, in general, receive royalties. Contracts swore her to secrecy about her carolling contributions to movie musicals.

In Showstopper, Dan Rebellato's wittily knowing yet sensitive one-woman play, Marni is fictionalised as Carole James, whom we meet, back in the Sixties, in three settings: a recording studio where she is trying to lay down a vocal for Audrey Hepburn; at a nervous Hollywood audition - "I've never been up for face-work before" - which she imagines is for the part of Reverend Mother in The Sound of Music and is dismayed to discover is just for one of the singing nuns; and in full religious rig-out on the set of The Sound of Music, where her dislike of Julie Andrews is not a closely guarded secret - "Yes, I saw Mary Poppins. Yes, she was. Terribly good. A great actress. She'll be in her trailer now. Being great. [Brilliantly deflating tiny paws.] Being an actress."

Bright, brittle, with the pukka camp manner of a woman who has spent a lot of time dishing the dirt with gay men, Jackie Clune's Carole is a complex, funny and affecting creation. She can bitch with the best (Ethel Merman, she says, doesn't need a recording studio; she just sings in front of a disc and lets her voice scratch grooves in the vinyl). But, as Carole's layers of self-deception shift so that you get glimpses of the vulnerability and depression underneath, Showstopper turns into an intriguing meditation on fame and on the essential unfairness of star quality, which has no necessary relation to technical skills.

Though it's hardly in her interests to be so, Carole is quite clear and undeluded on this last point. It's significant that she is absolutely besotted with Audrey Hepburn, whose voice she had to dub, and can't stand Julie Andrews, who is able to manage both voice and visuals. The difference is that Hepburn is a true star who can inspire love in every member of the audience, whereas Julie... well, "Julie's Julie." There are shades of one of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads in the way that Carole's adulation of Hepburn betrays her into claiming a friendly familiarity with the actress. This turns out to be the touching fantasy of someone who has been close to stardom only in the sense of languishing in its cold shadow. What is remarkable is the lack of resentment. This reaches a climax when Carole adoringly recalls a five-minute film of Audrey singing a song written by her husband which was screened at the My Fair Lady "wrap" party. To hear Carole talk, you'd never guess that she herself had provided the vocals for this.

We learn from the programme that Jackie Clune, ironically enough, has another career doing cabaret performances in the persona of Karen Carpenter. Now that's the kind of thing that would have landed Marni Nixon in court.

To 1 Feb. Booking: 0171-836 2132